Record cattle prices resulting from all-time low cow numbers in the U.S. is signaling expansion among ranchers across the country, according to experts. However, land availability and available capital are challenges in meeting cowherd expansion.

Texas cattle industry representatives met recently in San Antonio for the Dr. Kenneth and Caroline McDonald Eng Foundation Symposium, where they could hear more about these challenges.

Cattle industry reps hear latest research on expanding cowherdThe symposium examined intensification options or increasing output of beef per unit acre. There was interest from attendees since intensification in cow-calf systems historically hasn’t been viewed as an economical option to grazing from rangeland or improved pastureland.

Intensification is increasing output per unit acre. With land in the U.S. becoming more expensive for cow-calf operations, as well as available operating capital, intensification could be an option to consider for some ranchers, according to experts.

Dr. Tryon Wickersham, Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientist and professor in the department of animal science at Texas A&M University, said the increasing affluence of developing countries coupled with a rapidly expanding global population will require more high-quality protein production.

“The world population is expected to increase to 9.6 billion people by 2050 and the demand for protein will continue,” he said. “The challenge is basically there is no more land and it takes a considerable amount of capital for cow-calf producers to expand their herds.”

Wickersham presented research that examined managing energy requirements in confined cows. He said beef cow inventory in the U.S. has declined considerably and the Texas beef cow inventory has decreased 28 percent in the 2000s.

“The market definitely signals expansion, but what’s limiting growth? In Texas, some feel we are not fully out of the drought. Some are hesitant to go out and buy a $2,000 or $2,500 cow only to have to take her to a fire sale next year when there is a drought.

“Land is also being bought by folks for other uses than agriculture. There’s big competition for available land and there are constraints to available capital. Are there better investments, for example, rental property? Even if we do increase, can we increase enough cows to meet beef demand?”

Wickersham’s research focused on these challenges. The framework for his study was based on a ranch that has a supply of energy, and he noted that ranch managers need to harvest that energy to meet certain requirements.

“We did a trial limit-feeding high energy diets versus low energy diets to improve efficiency of cow-calf production especially for cows during the dry period,” he said. “We found when we fed a diet that contains more concentrate, we decreased the amount needed to feed cows and made them more efficient with regards to reducing maintenance energy requirements. We could feed those cows considerably less than we would if allowed to consume diets of a lower energy value.”

The study used 32 British crossed Bos indicus cows. The intensification strategy placed the cows in a confined feeding system for four months per year. The cows were placed into the intensification system immediately following weaning and would be returned to pasture 30 days prior to calving. This simplified management practices and avoided calving and/or breeding during the confinement period, according to the research.

When accounting for all feed and variable costs, all scenarios evaluated in the feed study appeared to be profitable due to high calf prices. Net return on a base 500 cow system was $364.33 per head, while a low-energy diet using a 696 head system returned $237.08 a head.

A high-energy diet on a 696 head system returned $298.08 a head. Total returns to the base system with cows grazing year round were $182,162 per year versus $165,195 and $207,699 for the low-energy diet and the high-energy diet, respectively. When evaluating intensification diet costs, intake of the diet is a big driver in system efficiency.

Wickersham said small and large cow-calf producers could adopt the research.

“It definitely provides opportunity for small and large cow-calf producers to improve their efficiency,” he said. “I think the way they would adopt this research would look different in each of these operations. As for how they might manage it for their own operations, they would have to manage it individually.”